Preventing toxin warfare

Shortly before Secretary Haig's Berlin speech, a Washington report said that officials did not want to go public on findings of toxin warfare in Southeast Asia until a compelling case for them could be made. Mr. Haig did go public, suggesting that such a case could indeed be made. It must have full scrutiny by the independent experts conducting a United Nations investigation of numerous alleged violations of international laws against chemical and biological weapons.

Like the new US assertions, previous allegations were referred to remote areas, such as in Laos, Cambodia, or Afghanistan. Perhaps because of the out-of-sight-out-of-mind temptation, the conscience of people and governments has not been aroused as it should be. Instead or vigorous confrontation of the matter in these areas, there has been understandable concern about how to provide protection elsewhere, in Europe, for example. And there has been in America a decision to produce new nerve gas in addition to the large supplies available to retaliate in kind should an adversary resort to chemical attack.

Debate on such measures is wise. But it must no be allowed to substitute for action against acceptance of such weaponry for any reason. International opinion has to be alerted against a creeping toleration of instruments that humanity has understandably abhorred and acted against in the past.

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Undocumented chemical-warfare accusations for propaganda purposes can be counterproductive by causing the public to think that all allegations are merely crying wolf. Thus it was well for the Reagan administration to make certain of its ground, at least on what it called preliminary evidence, before going public in such a major way. If the evidence is confirmed, Secretary Haig will be entitled to his oratorical point against the double standard, too: "At the very time when the United States is being accused of delay on arms control, others appear to be violating one of the oldest arms control agreements -- that prohibiting the use of toxins."

Who those others are will be a central part of the UN investigation. The Soviet Union and its clients are the prime suspects. But the administration has not spelled out direct links to Moscow. And the discussions of international law could run into questions about whether the 1925 Geneva protocol against chemical weapons in war applies to the precise situations at hand. The Russians signed with a reservation that they would be bound only in relation to other parties to the treaty, who did not include Afghanistan, for example. The 1972 convention against even the manufacture of lethal toxins would seem to cover the toxins in question. But it appears that signatory Russia is not necessarily the manufacturer.

Such talk must seem like callous hair-splitting to anyone with a shred of empathy for the estimated 15,000 faraway victims of the horrible effects attributed to the toxins now brought to world attention. A key aim must be the elimination of any thought of such weapons anywhere. The immediate hope is that focusing the spotlight on them now may deter anyone contemplating their use.

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